The teams that supposedly did not have a prayer in SuperRugby this year were the most impressive South African sides in a rather depressing seventh round over the weekend.
While the Cheetahs claimed their fourth successive victory and climbed into the playoff places with their comprehensive victory over the Melbourne Rebels, and the Southern Kings once again shone in defeat, both the Bulls and Stormers paid the fee for terrible set-pieces and slumped to defeat against the Brumbies and the Crusaders respectively.
The Cheetahs are really beginning to bloom and their 34-16 win over the Rebels featured five tries, all scored by backline players – fullback Hennie Daniller, left wing Raymond Rhule, right wing Willie le Roux, outside centre Johann Sadie and replacement wing Rayno Benjamin.
The Rebels were far stronger opposition than they were last weekend against the Sharks and, apart from the manner in which the Cheetahs put them away in the second half, the other impressive feature of their victory was that they had just arrived from overseas.
“The guys had jet lag and we needed to start fresh after our success overseas, so I would have been happy with just the victory,” coach Naka Drotske said.
The Cheetahs started the match energetically enough, going 3-0 up inside the first 10 minutes, but they then fell asleep and allowed the Rebels to dictate terms and take a 6-3 lead before the last 10 minutes of the first half, when Le Roux’s exquisitely-timed pass allowed Sadie to burst through a gap and put Daniller away for the try.
The Cheetahs had spurned two clear try-scoring chances a few minutes earlier, so it was necessary for them to really switch on in the second half.
They did that and the backline were superb – Le Roux, inside centre Robert Ebersohn, Sadie and Rhule looked lethal every time they had the ball. Credit should also go to Burton Francis, the Cheetahs’ third-choice flyhalf, who gave a polished all-round display despite being rushed into the pivot position when Riaan Smit tore his hamstring while kicking before the match.
Amongst the forwards, the scrum finished strongly, hooker Adriaan Strauss had some inspirational moments and Coenie Oosthuizen was practically impossible to stop on the advantage line. Lock Lood de Jager made a few mistakes, but he had presence, while loose forward Lappies Labuschagne was once again hugely impressive.
Le Roux said after the game that he loved playing in a Cheetahs team “that has no structure”, at the same time having a dig at the structure of the Bulls and Stormers, but for all his wonderful skills with ball-in-hand, the 23-year-old from the Western Cape is clearly not gifted with the most astute tactical brain.
Rugby becomes a very difficult game to play successfully without any structure (who’s going to attend the breakdown for instance?) and the Cheetahs’ four-match winning streak – equalling their best ever in 2011 – has more to do with the huge improvement in their defensive structure than their willingness to run from anywhere.
Of course, Le Roux is at his best when the game becomes open and unstructured and the Cheetahs are certainly masters at playing ad lib, while the Bulls and Stormers can become stifled by their own precise planning.
While structure has become the watchword of modern rugby, ensuring you have a solid scrum and lineout has been law since those set-pieces were introduced.
Sadly, both the Bulls and Stormers seem to have ignored the importance of those facets and, as a result, slumped into even more trouble in the competition as they both suffered their third defeats.
The Stormers were 11-0 up after 23 minutes of their crunch clash with the Crusaders at Newlands, but could score just three more points in the next hour as they were beaten 19-14.
The Crusaders, despite missing Dan Carter, Kieran Read and Richie McCaw, losing Israel Dagg on the day of the game and Owen Franks and Johnny McNicholl early in the match, played with more precision and brought more ferocity to the breakdowns than the Newlands faithful have seen all season. Young Tyler Bleyendaal stepped into Carter’s considerable boots at flyhalf more than adequately and dictated the flow of the game as he comprehensively won the territorial battle.
But more than anything else, the Stormers were condemned by their awful lineout. Retreaded flank Deon Fourie’s throwing has always been dodgy but questions also have to be asked of Andries Bekker, who was comprehensively outplayed by the brilliant Sam Whitelock, but continued to call lineout throws to himself when he was heavily marked.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee also owes flyhalf Elton Jantjies a bit more faith. The Lions recruit was sublime last week in the victory over the Brumbies; against the Crusaders he looked a bit-player as Joe Pietersen was given the goalkicking duties and Jantjies was very seldom used as the first receiver. Unsurprisingly, he lacked confidence and was replaced midway through the second half.
Jake White is as sly a coach as you get but his Brumbies were disappointing in beating the Bulls 23-20 in Canberra, needing a controversial penalty after the hooter to beat a visiting side who were horribly mediocre themselves.
The Bulls had been typically reliant on kicking for position, but did so poorly, the Brumbies beating them at their own game. When the tourists did go wide with ball-in-hand, they had been physically dominated by the imposing Brumbies trio of wings Henry Speight and Jo Tomane and outside centre Tevita Kuridrani, leading to turnovers.
But, most importantly, the Bulls scrum had been an absolute disaster, conceding a string of penalties and ultimately a yellow card to loosehead prop Morné Mellett for repeated infringements.
Having reported on many Tests during White’s tenure with the Springboks when they failed to dominate seemingly “weak” Australian scrums, it was ironic to see a Brumbies pack shoving a Blue Bulls scrum all over the place. But White has always been a student of the game and is strong on traditional values like building a solid scrum around a powerful tighthead prop (Dan Palmer in this case).
But even though they had such a good platform, the Brumbies struggled to put the Bulls away and were clearly not on top of their game, perhaps due to the burden of travelling back from South Africa.
And it almost cost them as, on the stroke of full-time, lock Juandré Kruger ripped the ball off the Brumbies and fed replacement prop Frik Kirsten, who burst clear before outside centre JJ Engelbrecht sped away for the try. Flyhalf Morné Steyn was practically on the touchline as he provided the conversion that brought the Bulls back on to level terms (20-20).
Sadly for the Bulls, they then tried to run from the kick-off, Arno Botha taking the ball up and being penalised for holding on, even though Brumbies scrumhalf Nic White was clearly not on his feet as he played the ball at the ruck.
The slick Christian Lealiifano stepped up and kicked the penalty and there was little doubt the Brumbies deserved the win marginally more than the Bulls.
The Kings went down 46-30 to the Hurricanes in Wellington but there continues to be improvement in the rookies’ game.
There can be few more threatening attacking sides than the Hurricanes and the Kings were better in defence even though they conceded six tries.
There were three tries for the Kings and, in the third quarter, there were moments when the Eastern Cape side looked capable of winning as they closed the gap to 23-29 and had the Hurricanes under pressure in their own half.